The Birds! The Birds!
"What's That Noise?"

Copyright 2004 by Rebecca Roberts
All Rights Reserved (Click Here for Details)

What?  Pardon?  Excuse me?  Sorry?  There's no comfortable word to use when you ask someone to repeat themselves, especially if you need to use the expression frequently.

I had a childhood fraught with ear problems.  Excruciating long term earaches, which our housekeepers treated according to their various home remedy theories by pouring warm oil into my ears, covering them with hot washcloths or applying some mysterious brownish liquid with an eye dropper.  I went completely deaf in third grade.  This embarrassed me profoundly so I tried to hide the fact from everyone around me.  I developed clever and deceptive cover-up mechanisms.  At home I talked incessantly from the moment I tumbled out of bed until I left the house for school.  If I was talking no one would discover I couldn't hear them.  My secret was soon unveiled however.  Mrs. Soika, my beloved third grade teacher, called my dad at home and reported that I often didn't respond when she called on me.  She thought I might have a hearing problem.  I felt deceived.  She did this behind my back without even telling me beforehand!  I was taken out of school.  There were visits to the doctor’s office, where I remember my ears being probed and peered into, and then a few weeks later as I lay on the living room rug outlining the pictures in my favorite coloring book, I suddenly heard the radio.

As a teenager, I was told the reason for my slight hearing loss was scar tissue on my eardrums, probably caused by a childhood infection.  In recent years I've begun to notice that some of my friends need to speak up and I use the volume control on the telephone in order to hear conversations.  When at the theater I choose a front seat.  In my Pilates class I can hear my classmates talking, but can't quite make out the words and others often laugh when I don't know what the joke is.

Two things inspired me to have my hearing checked after years of thinking about it.  I attend a session at a conference.  The facilitator asks us to close our eyes while she guides us through an exercise.  I am sitting only a few chairs away from her in a large circle of women.  As the exercise begins, her voice softens as she guides us into a quiet relaxation.  Several murmuring minutes later, she brings us back into the moment, raises her voice and asks us to write about one of the things that came up for us during the guided relaxation.  Nothing at all came up for me, as I heard not one word of what she said.  I have nothing to write about.  Later that day I meet a woman who casually tucks her hair behind one ear as we are talking.  I notice she's wearing a hearing aid and ask her about it.  She is effervescently enthusiastic about how hearing aids changed her life.  I call Brad, a friend and audiologist to make an appointment.

The day of my hearing exam I am excited and nervous.  I’m hoping that my loss can be helped, dreading the possibility that it can’t and knowing it's time to find out.  I'm missing too much.  Brad, asks me to explain the specifics of my hearing difficulties, then I sit in front of a speaker and listen to a man's recorded voice distinctly pronouncing a list of words.  He enunciates clearly.  I am to repeat the words back to Brad.  In the first segment, the voice speaks the words with no background noise.   Next the same voice articulates a new list of words at the same decibel level, this time with background noise similar to what a person might experience in a restaurant.  On part one, the quiet list; I am surprised to find I got 85% correct.  What?  I thought I heard them all perfectly!  On the second list, the one with background noise I heard only 52% correctly.  I'm shocked.  My hearing loss has advanced slowly and I have developed coping skills, but I'm at the point where my hearing deficit is impacting my life more than I realized.

Childhood events may have nothing to do with my current hearing loss.  I have what seems to be a classic case of noise damage.  I have spent way too many hours lying on my back listening to music with the volume up – way up!  While I lay in ecstasy, riding fabulous emotional waves of music, my poor overburdened ear bones and nerves were busily doing a death dance.

Finally I sit in a sound booth wearing a pair of headphones. Again I respond to spoken words.  This time Brad feeds the sound into the headphones corrected for my hearing loss and this time I hear 100% correctly.  I am fascinated to notice, that when I hear the words with clarity, I feel free to enunciate them back precisely.  I no longer feel it necessary to slur the end of a word in order to cover up my possible misinterpretation.  Another little deceptive coping mechanism I hadn’t even been aware I was using.

Three weeks later I return to the office to meet my new hearing aids.  Brad instructs me on the care and feeding of my new ear jewelry and warns me I might feel tired the first few days.  That's odd I think, what is it about putting a couple of strange little plastic objects in my ears that can possibly make me tired?  I soon discover.  After not hearing clearly for so long, I've suddenly turned into a character out of a Hitchcock movie running around exclaiming, "The Birds! The Birds"!!  Yes, I've always heard the birds, but now they seem to be screaming.  For days I am overstimulated and amazed as new sound discoveries bombard me.

In the library I feel like I am eavesdropping.  I can distinctly hear the conversations going on around me.  Approaching my car I clearly hear the locks click as my remote unlocks the doors.  I am blatantly conscious of my turn signal.  Each click has an amazing precise beginning and end.  Ticka! Ticka!  Ticka!  Such clarity!  The ability to distinguish the beginnings and ending of all sounds is magical.  Brushing my hair though is horrifying.  Each stroke sounds like sandpaper rubbing my scalp and when I wipe my hands on the towel I hear the friction between cloth and hands.  I can even hear the sound of Kleenex between my fingers.  Keys clank, pens click, leaves clatter, traffic is caustic and when I turn on my chair I hear my jeans rubbing on the reed seat.  I used to laugh at my cat when he opened his mouth and made soft, almost pretend mews, now I discover he sounds quite demanding.

The best comparison I can make to my new hearing discoveries is the aha I have when, after hearing a foreign or complicated name repeatedly on the news I finally see it in print.  There's a sudden connection.  Oh, that's how it's spelled, that's how you say it.  What most people take for granted is truly miraculous to one who hasn't heard clearly.

I now sport two leading edge mini computers in my ears.  Each one has within its ear canal shaped shell a variable volume control and two programs.  On the outside surface is a tiny volume control wheel and a miniscule button that I can press to switch back and forth between programs depending on the requirements of my current environment.

I am passionately in love with these little gems and the hearing acuity they provide, but living through the acclimation process is interesting.  I've been living in a very quiet world.  After some time, I'm told, my brain will learn which things I don't need to pay attention to and some of the things I'm overly aware of now will fade to a more normal level.  I'm hearing many things for the first time in years so they are presently too noticeable.  Eating will cease to consist of a bevy of smacking, crunchy mastications and juicy wet gulping sounds.  I will no longer be constantly looking over my shoulder startled by unknown sounds.  People won’t be curious why I’m laughing aloud in the bathroom as I unzip and pull down my pants and hear the distinct clicking sound of the metal zipper and the loud swish of fiber on skin.

I could have lived without hearing help for a long time.  Over the years I've become an expert on gestalting things together, even though at times it has made me a bit slow on the uptake.  One of my many denial issues was rationalizing that I was helping my brain stay acute making it work hard in this way.  I felt I was managing very well, but thankfully I didn't wait longer.  The batteries, the control buttons are all small and younger fingers learn more easily.  More importantly after too long a wait, the brain actually loses its ability to reconnect synapses and recognize certain sounds.  Hearing aids can't reconstruct that loss.

There's no such thing as a perfect world and I've always been overly noise sensitive.  I love quiet and I've lived in a very quiet world for a long time.  I often find noise irritating and the noise that irritated me before is even more irritating now, but I'm relearning every day and in the meantime I have a volume control.

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